Quick Answer: While the timing of House of Cards Season 4 prevented any close mirroring of the 2016 elections, the season shows interesting parallels with historical US presidential races. In one episode, Frank Underwood and his Republican opponent Will Conway compare themselves to Nixon and Kennedy in the 1960 election. But the strongest comparison is to the election of 1948, in which southern Democrat Harry Truman narrowly defeated charismatic New York Republican Thomas Dewey, despite widespread certainty that Dewey would prevail. However consciously or unconsciously, the central House of Cards players appear to be influenced by past presidents and pretenders to the Oval Office.
In the fourth season of Netflix drama House of Cards (2013-), Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is on a mission to be re-elected as President of the United States. Just as Underwood is fighting to retain his presidential status, candidates like Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are fighting to gain their party's nomination for president. Airing Underwood's re-election storyline in House of Cards during 2016 primary season shows a clever use of foresight, as lining up the fictional election with the real one feeds into the nation's current focus and automatically creates interesting overlaps, however unplanned. Perhaps more interesting than these coincidences, though, is a different overlap: the season's interpersonal dynamics share strong similarities with at least two iconic US elections from the past.
In an interview with Kristin Dos Santos of Eonline.com, House of Cards creator Beau Willimon discusses the fact that it was not possible for them to imitate the 2016 presidential race because of when they were filming. "We're not trying to deliberately parallel what's going on in real life," he said. "And it would be a fool's errand to try because we're writing the season many, many months before it airs." Season 4 of House of Cards started filming around June of 2015. There wasn't a clear date for the start of the circus-like nature of the 2016 elections, although the first debate in either the Democrat or Repulican races took place in September of 2015. While these debates have showcased the craziness of this election cycle, House of Cards featured a rather respectful debate in Season 4, Episode 10, "Chapter 50" between the Democratic Presidential candidate Underwood with his running-mate, his wife Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), and the Republican Presidential candidate, Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman), with his running-mate, General Brockhart (Colm Feore). While the scene features textbook House of Cards intrigue, manipulation and hypocrisy, the two pairs at least speak about actual issues like the threat of ICO (the show's version of ISIS), as opposed to a discussion about the size of a candidate's hands. Given that House of Cards always reaches for the larger-than-life scenario, it is telling that the fictional debates make the real ones look decidedly outlandish.
In the characterization of Conway and his contrast with Underwood, the show creators seem to have taken more inspiration from past than present. In a meeting between Underwood and Conway, to supposedly discuss ICO, in Season 4, Episode 8, “Chapter 48,” they engage in a meta-commentary comparing themselves to Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, who ran against each other for President in 1960. Highlighting the strangeness of the fact that Underwood is a southern Democrat and Conway is a Republican from New York, Underwood and Conway even note how “fictional” it may seem for each of them to represent their party. They joke about how, if their parties were reversed, Underwood would most resemble Nixon and Conway would Kennedy. Kennedy was a young, charismatic politician who was able to easily connect with Americans, similar to the relatable, selfie-taking, social-media-happy Conway. Nixon wasn’t considered as personable as Kennedy and, of course, experienced his fair share of scandals, just like Underwood. In the 1960 race, Kennedy won. Could his similarities to Kennedy imply that Conway may have an easy rode to victory in Season 5?
Still, since their parties are not reversed, the race between Underwood and Conway seems most akin to the 1948 election between Harry Truman — a southern, liberal-leaning Democrat, similar to Underwood — and Thomas Dewey — a northern Republican like Conway. Underwood and Truman were both Vice Presidents who ascended to the presidency in the middle of a term. They also display a pragmatic side but nonetheless focus on some progressive social issues (civil rights for Truman and gun control for Underwood). Meanwhile, Conway and Dewey are both young, well-liked Republicans from New York. Dewey even led in his election against Truman by a considerable margin, just as Conway has a good lead over Underwood at the end of Season 4. We’ll have to wait until Season 5 to find out if Underwood can follow Truman's example and win with a last-minute upset.
Truman holds up the incorrect headline of the Chicago Deadline Tribune, which prematurely declared Dewey the winner in 1948.
While Season 4 of House of Cards shows certain parallels to today's elections due to the contemporary setting, the candidates of the 1948 and 1960 Presidential elections align more powerfully with the House of Cards characters. However consciously or unconsciously, the personalities of the central House of Cards players appear to be informed by past presidents and pretenders to the Oval Office.